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Nova Scotia's film industry faces 'a real exodus' after tax credit changes

Seven months after the Nova Scotia government axed the film tax credit, many in the industry still fear more changes couldn't bring a once-prosperous business back.

Film industry workers are leaving Nova Scotia to find jobs where business is booming

Sudbury's film business is attracting a number of Nova Scotians who are struggling to keep their year busy, as they were once able before the Nova Scotia government changed the province's film tax credit last July. (CBC)

The Nova Scotia film and television industry is trying to cope with the fear of a plot twist — a provincial government, desperate to save money, may one day dim the light on attracting valuable productions to the province for good.

Chris Ball, an experienced director of photography living in Nova Scotia, says his short and long-term prospects aren't good. He'd normally be in demand this time of year.

A few weeks work on a children's show is all he's lined up, he says. And for a man who came to Halifax 10 years ago with a wave of film crews that helped build the film business into a $120-million a year industry, it's a sign of tough times.

"At Christmas time my wife and I sat down and said what really is our future here," Ball said, whose wife is now working in the film industry in Ontario.

"She has work lined up until Christmas next year. That's the contrast. I'm looking at maybe a couple of rumours, she's looking at guaranteed work until Christmas."

Chris Ball, a director of photography, must decide if he and his wife will move from Nova Scotia to a part of Canada where film production jobs are more reliable. (CBC)

When Nova Scotia brought in its film tax credit 20 years ago, Hollywood came calling. With it, came big ticket productions worth millions of dollars.  

Marc Almon of Screen Nova Scotia says the province's industry grew from there. 

"The industry has grown 20 times in 20 years. It's gone from $6 million a year to $150 million a year in economic activity. That's a major success story for Nova Scotia."

Since July 2015, that story has changed. 

'A real exodus'

In a desperate attempt to save money last summer, the cash-strapped McNeil government axed the film tax credit. It sent the multi-million dollar industry into chaos and led to a rally outside Province House. 

The government replaced the film tax credit with a new film and television incentive fund. To date, less than 20 per cent of it has been released.

"The problem is that it has been such a rapid change that you're talking about an industry that is very risk adverse because it's a tough industry to get projects off the ground and get projects made," Almon explained. 

"Often times these decisions get made and will go to a jurisdiction that is more stable and more, just more supportive of their industry. There has been a real exodus. A diaspora of Nova Scotia crew and cast have been flowing out to the rest of Canada where the film industry is booming."

Sudbury's film boom

One of those places Nova Scotians are headed is Sudbury in northern Ontario. It has one of the best deals around for filmmakers.

Last year, 16 productions were filmed there. That's an estimated $35 million injected into the local economy. 

All because of provincial incentives — including a film tax credit similar to the one Nova Scotia used to have.

Ian Greig moved to Sudbury from Halifax to find work as a set decorator. (CBC)

Sudbury is where Ian Greig, a set decorator formerly from Halifax, is now working. His job is to buy everything and anything that is needed to dress sets.

He's bitter about the Nova Scotia government's decision to eliminate the film tax credit.

"Everybody has a calculator, they know how to use them. If we had a viable deal in Nova Scotia people would be there, we'd be filming there," he said.

"I am a practical person, but nearly every other jurisdiction in Canada — except maybe Saskatchewan or New Brunswick — feels that the tax credit systems in place [are a] great benefit to jurisdictions. It seems implausible to me that those other jurisdictions could be so wrong."

Fixing 'complexities' in new system

Nova Scotia Business Minister Mark Furey agrees the industry has undergone dramatic growth over the last 10 years. 

"We realized the cost to government was disproportionate to what government was able to extend to other sectors," Furey said.

"The Nova Scotia Commission on Building Our New Economy identified other sectors with high potential for growth and our investment in those sectors was insignificant compared to what support extended to the film industry."

Furey says he is not familiar with how the industry is doing in Sudbury. He also says the provincial government and industry can not agree on what the film business is worth to this province.

Some in the industry say the new incentive fund is not viable for large-scale productions. However, some smaller projects have received funding.

Finding common ground

Marc Almon, whose latest film was the first to be funded under the new fund, says the new system can work, but it needs improvements.

"The incentive has the potential to work," he said. "[It's the] same fashion as the old tax credit but it's just there are complexities causing some problems. Right now, [we] can't afford to have complexities … [we] need something that is simple and straightforward that works."

For Chris Ball, time is running out and the difficult decision to leave a life and home he loves looms large.

"I am probably bitter, [that] would be a good way to say it. Because as I said we made a big commitment to this province," he said. 

"We are one of the people who moved here but we felt we made this big commitment to this place this big investment to the province. And I'm feeling like the government has betrayed that investment."

About the Author

Tom Murphy

Host

Tom Murphy is co-host CBC Nova Scotia's supper hour news program and correspondent for The National. He also hosts Land and Sea and is brother to Bob.

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